Although it's a widely held conviction that WWE is popular in the US and little more than an amusing oddity over here, THQ's latest SmackDown game proves that Vince McMahon's soap opera-tinted culture of grappling, slapping and spandex outfits still makes the right moves in the UK. The kids have spoken. Here Comes The Pain, the fifth SmackDown! title was the second biggest-selling game in this week's Chart-Track Top 40.
After spending a few days with the game we're not allowed to call SmackDown 5, it's clear that the vast distance between the arenas of WWE and the cubicles of Japanese developer Yuke's hasn't dulled the show's impact, and more so than ever before Yuke's adaptation of what goes on in and out of the ring has nailed what makes WWE so grudgingly watchable and, though we speak of it only in hushed tones and after several hefty drinks, massively enjoyable.
Although purists will point out that Fire Pro Wrestling on the Dreamcast was a better wrestling simulation, Yuke's has still turned out a finely tuned, superbly balanced beat-'em-up and somehow managed to incorporate 65 of the wrestling circuit's foremost personalities, including a number of the gals and even some old-hands like the Legion of Doom, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase - names you're only pretending you don't recognise [but I don't - Ed].
The basic act of wrestling is far easier to pick up and yet far more varied and considered than ever before. Grappling is now a far more elegant and thoughtful process - when first locking arms with an opponent, the player has to hit circle and a direction to select a type of grapple (up for power, down for submission hold, left for signature move, right for quick attack), then quickly hit another similar combination, with the opportunity to mix your selection immediately throwing up 16 potential moves. It's all about timing, and the new reversal system means a skilled player can actually unhook themselves from an attack with careful application of L2 (for strikes) or R2 (for grapples).
All your prayers for an opportunity to "work the bread basket" and whatnot have also been answered, with limb-specific body damage critical to success. A little stick man next to your SmackDown meter now keeps you up to date on where you're taking (and doing) the most damage, allowing you to focus on particular areas of an opponent's body and lay sustained and strategic groundwork for submission moves throughout the bout. And although the submission system - a button-tapping exercise (on both sides, if it's a multiplayer bout) that has you trying to push either towards 'submission' (to win) or 'escape' (to break the hold) - might seem a little unfair on geriatric gamers, it comes up with the odds slanted one way or another depending on the state of the attacker and the victim. In other words, if you're clearly winning a bout, it'll be much easier to coax a submission out of a crumbling adversary, even if button-mashing is beyond your crippled digits.
Add to that the traditional array of moves - we're told the game boasts every move every wrestler involved has ever performed - and AI which uses them in accordance with the real-life WWE wrestlers' behaviour, and there are oceans of depth to uncover here - a quick glance over a player's guide while we were still, ahem, wrestling with the controls revealed more button combinations than we've had to learn all year. For folks who want to be getting something new out of a fighter in six months' time, this is right up there with the genre heavyweights.
With a legion of dedicated fans snapping at them over the tiniest flaws, Yuke's has also managed to give each wrestler the right weighting, literally - it's now impossible for a smaller wrestler from a lower weight band to lift and slam a larger one (although curiously this doesn't seem to apply to SmackDown finishing moves) - and in terms of their overall abilities, with personal ratings in five categories: strength, submission, stamina, technique and speed. It's certainly something to consider when picking a character.
As you'd imagine, it's also possible to upgrade a character's abilities by earning experience points in the rather involving single-player Season mode. Although not a huge improvement on Shut Your Mouth's version (and you can't use the female wrestlers for a whole Season either, despite their, shall we say, expanded roles elsewhere), Season mode is still the biggest undertaking the game has to offer, giving you all the sweat, blood, elaborate introductions and gimmicky storylines (over 200, penned by the WWE's actual writers) of the countless TV shows and pay-per-view events, and even behind the scenes bonding that the cameras tend not to focus on.
Instead of just wrestling through a series of bouts and winning a few belts in the process, the SmackDown Season mode starts off as the wrestlers are split into the SmackDown and RAW camps (the two generally opposing TV shows), and also brings you the 'drama' that follows contract signings, main events, the big PPV specials like the Royal Rumble, and even internal business politics. To bring the WWE to life beyond the ring, Yuke's has modelled a number of backstage areas, with gratifyingly destructible environments, loads of TV sets and other objects to toss around, and works plenty of out-of-the-ring confrontations into the plot - you may even spend longer playing Season mode away from the crowds than you do wrestling in front of them. You really have to have your wits about you. And although Season mode only spans the one year, as long as you're prepared to put up with a bit of storyline repetition you can happily import your records and circumstances into a new Season to carry things on.
Don't let it get you down
SmackDown also boasts an overwhelming number of match types and arenas to knuckle down in, so much so that it almost seems embarrassing just to pick it up for a one-on-one exhibition in the vanilla SmackDown arena. There's support for six players here, all the expected tag, handicap, and three-way/four-way bouts, not to mention "hardcore" matches, the Royal Rumble (which is a manic experience and a joy to win), familiar PPV events and a trio of new additions; First Blood (where the winner, obviously, is the chap who draws blood using an array of weapons or just his bare hands), Elimination Chamber (six blokes in a ring, four of them released one-by-one from glass tubes as the match wears on) and Bra & Panties mode (a female-only match-up where the loser is the first girl to be stripped down to her underwear - with the submission meter brought up for the inevitable tug-of-war between pant-ripper and pant-ee).
Yuke's has also stripped out a couple of modes that appeared in Shut Your Mouth, but to be honest there's so much here that criticism seems unfair - we haven't even mentioned the ladder matches, cage matches, street fights, submission-only bouts and all the rest. In terms of other omissions, we've seen some criticism levelled at this one for failing to include more of the female wrestlers (though without being able to use them in Season mode, we can only conclude that most folks just want to ogle their introductory videos and see what colour underpants they're wearing) and some of the other blokey wrestlers, but unless you're a WWE die-hard, we reckon 65 fully-rounded characters is a decent selection. Of the chaps and chapettes we recognised, the likenesses are amazing, and we were particularly pleased when we managed to unlock some of the wrestlers we liked when we had all the old Survivor Series videos - using cash earned putting The Rock through a season of SmackDown.
In fact, our knowledge of current events in World Wrestling Entertainment may be a bit lacking, but Yuke's really has managed to capture the essence of the sport we remember from a few years back, with all the controversies (tag partners rushing the ring to break up pin holds or submissions, referees getting knocked out and being unable to slam their hand down three times, steel chairs being thrown around, tables getting smashed, etc), overblown theatre and pageantry of the thing alive and kicking, punching and DDT-ing at the heart of Here Comes The Pain.
The 'Create' element of SmackDown is another bonus for people like me who used to wrestle their siblings and pillows in the spare bedroom on a Saturday afternoon (I had issues), allowing you to craft your own wrestlers right down to the fine details - like whether he or she wears particular garments throughout the bout or just on the way to the ring, and even design or unlock new movesets from the in-game shop. Ok, it's a shame this isn't an Xbox and you can't use your own CDs to fill in your ringside introductory music - imagine recording your own rubbish and then copying it to the 'box [wistful, childish sigh] - but in a game where you can even pick your custom character's teeth, having to rely on a few pre-rolled intro songs is a minor concern.
Perhaps more concerning is that despite this being the fifth SmackDown title (and the god-knows-how-many-eth WWF/E wrestling game), it still lacks a suitable tutorial mode. Now, we like games with depth and subtlety that isn't immediately apparent (Pro Evolution Soccer, for example), but coming to SmackDown from anything other than a SmackDown background, you're going to struggle to pick it up quickly without careful study of the manual and perhaps even GameFAQs. It's certainly worth persisting with, but much as we like the ocean, everyone needs to find their sea legs before climbing the rigging and suplexing a balding Texan rattlesnake from the crow's nest. Can you smell what I'm cooking here?
However, there pretty much ends our frustrations with this one. After several stabs at it on PS2, Yuke's has delivered a superb blend of traditional and wrestling-specific fight mechanics, and there's so much variety here that it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say you could play this one from now until the next SmackDown without getting bored or running out of things to do [but you'd be missing out on a whole load of good games if this is the only one you played! -Ed]. The fact that it's also an incredibly well-presented game is key to its success of course, and although occasionally a little waxwork-ish, the character modelling and animation shake up our perceptions of what can be done on this hardware - something which ultimately is vital to a sport which holds spectacle up above technical prowess and now more than ever has to rely on personality to sell itself.
The dynamic camera effects help here too, with the perspective regularly shifting at sensible junctures - during a lengthy animation, for example - to enhance the illusion of this being TV coverage of your fight. The only slight niggle in the presentation department is the lack of commentary, but having complained about it in every previous SmackDown game we're actually kind of glad to see it gone.
Overall this is a game that offers a different style of beat-'em-up to more traditional tastes like Soul Calibur II and Street Fighter, with combat based largely on timing, grappling and strategic attacking. Although it does come unstuck now and then, with some hits failing to register and a few clipping issues like a bloke's face stuck halfway into the mat, the variety and quality of options in this year's SmackDown more than make up for it. It's the most well-rounded and lovingly developed WWE game we've ever seen, and if you're not beyond mustering a bit of passion for pointless, pre-determined athletic extravagance, then this really ought to be on your shopping list.